The sun was setting and derek was worried the light would be gone before we would reach Wadi Al Bais, the cluster of rocky mountains and gorges that create terribly beautiful waterfalls and rivers (wadi means ‘valley’ in arabic) come rainy season — if indeed, it does come.
it’s ok, i assured him. we can always come back and catch the light another day. honestly, what was on my mind was the afghan restaurant he said we’d have dinner at, and the ras al kaimah market.
after two hours of driving from ajman, and navigating the roads just outside the progressive area of ras al kaimah, past silent-looking villas and the odd grade school-age child with his bicycle, we come upon the mountains that make wadi al bais: brown and stark and — as we drive deeper into the range — almost foreboding in their monotony. derek thinks it’s all beautiful, though. “ang ma-nice, no?” he says, jittery with excitement. i, on the other hand, imagine moses looking upon this kind of scenery and thinking, “OMG Lord. what was i thinking???”
derek is excited because a) i would at last be able to see what he’s seen, b) he wants to take a photo with a plastic bag from Stew Leonards and get it posted on the website to win a US$100 gift card for his nieces, and c) he’d finally be able to show me what he and elvis (that’s what he names his cars, this time a 2004 suzuki vitara) survived during a flash flood in march 2010. “elvis saved my life,” he likes to brag, about the flood that killed three men. that time, i was in the states and was wondering why the freak he hadn’t texted me the whole day. turns out he was fighting mother nature and filing a story of a lifetime (as we all think stories are when they’re happening then and there).
it seldom rains in those parts of the world (ras al kaimah gets the occasional snowfall, though) — so when it does, everyone is a-flutter. that day, derek assigned his staff to drive over and take photos of the noble, hirsute, otherwise poker-faced emiratis enjoying the instant waterfalls and trickling rivers. many took their luxury SUVs up the mountains, only to find that the downpour had caused raging rivers too wild and unwieldy for their Lexuses and Fords to pass through. Elvis, though, was different. he maneuvered his master to safety—and to tell me 10,000 times how elvis is “the best car in the world.”
i doze off mid-trip, as we reach the foot of the jebel jais mountain cluster. it is 40 degrees celsius outside the car, even if it’s already nearing sundown. comically, wrongly dressed for the situation, i pick my way among the jagged rocks in my reebok tones and sit gingerly on a boulder. it’s hotter than even the hottest sidewalk from my childhood days playing patintero in caritan sur, tuguegarao.
derek positions himself on a rock, all-condition boots protecting his feet from the heat and kramat around his neck, with the mountain range behind him. i take several shots of him with the grocery bag: with cap, without cap, with glasses, without glasses, horizontal, vertical. it’s the most absurd photo shoot i’ve been to. and i’m the one taking the photos.
a good 10 kilometers across from where i’m sitting, goatherds are calling to their flock: “je! je! je!” the wards come, deftly tiptoeing across the mountain face, bleating their obeisance. a few minutes after, another herd is let out, this time from a house beneath the previous one. what these men do when the sun comes down, when there is no more heat to complain about, no more light to bathe their humble homes, and when the silence echoes more distantly than “je! je! je!”—i have no idea. i don’t even want to imagine.
i see other houses as we drive back down, villas (or what the locals call huge, two-storey houses) built on a flattened bed of sand-rain-sand-rain-mud. at least those seem to have electrical power, a generator, maybe even Internet connection.
a nepalese engineer (or so we assume, since he’s dressed neatly in a uniform), hitches a ride back. he doesn’t speak english. as we reach almost-civilization and turn a corner, he stops us. “kalas!” he says, meaning, “done”, or “finished”. we drop him off. “shukran.” thank you.
i decide i don’t want afghani food. so derek drives around, and tells me to say stop when i see something nice.
i see al adiba near the corniche. “moroccan food” it says, with the correct spelling — not morokon, not morakan. the owner seems to know her stuff.
and she does: lamb and olive tagine, the lamb so soft and succulent you can tear it apart with the pads of your fingers; freshly-made harissa; couscous cooked with sausages, eggplant, sweet potato, carrots, and beef—everything so flavorful and aromatic that when the owner comes by and asks us, “good?” we can barely answer because we’re already shovelling food in our mouths like we just discovered how amazing food can be when actually cooked over a fire.
“moroccan tea?’ asks the waiter, and he brings us a steaming pot of a honey-mint-citrus brew that helps us digest the feast. we are almost catatonic.
but not catatonic enough to drive through the old quarters of ras al kaimah and raid two antique stores. it’s very late, but it’s ok. we’ve caught the light and then some.